I am always amazed at how things find us when we least expect them to. Today someone sent me a link where a comprehensive article on someone special had been written by Jordan Conn in 2013 in the ESPN The Magazine. I’m going to post sections of this article on my blog here over the next few days. This will be interspersed with thoughts of my own (if they arise) and the many fantastic photos of this someone special. (Note: sections taken from the article will be marked in italics and my own thoughts, well, in non-italics.)
The article spoke to me. It is about pain. Recognising, acknowledging and accepting it for what it is. It is also about pushing; pushing those physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual boundaries. But more than that, it is about human resilience and the capacity of the human spirit to fight, to overcome, no matter how hard, no matter how old. This inspiring person that I speak of ran his first marathon at the age of 89. He ran his last, two years ago, at 101 years of age, in Hong Kong. 101 years of age. 101. Yes, I tell myself. Yes, I tell you. And I am struggling to run one round around a football pitch.
His name is Fauja Singh. Fauja, meaning “army general,” or “soldier.”
Was it pain he felt as he approached the end, just footsteps away from redefining the limits of human endurance? No, this wasn’t pain. Fauja knew pain. Pain was death — you see plenty of that when you live 100 years. Pain was bloody limbs and overtaxed joints — you get too much of that when you insist on completing every race you ever start. This wasn’t pain but exhaustion. And Fauja could handle exhaustion, because exhaustion foreshadowed euphoria. When Fauja got tired, it often meant a record would soon fall.
Fauja ran in Toronto, arms swinging, yellow turban bobbing, chest-length Zeusian beard swaying in the wind. He was joined by other runners with roots in the Indian region of Punjab, their appearance in keeping with the traditions of their Sikh faith. Fauja trotted for the first three miles, until his coach encouraged him to slow to a jog. Speed was fleeting, the enemy of endurance. By mile 6, he’d downshifted to a toddle. After a break for a rubdown and some tea at mile 18, he settled into a walk. The exhaustion took hold sometime around mile 20, but Harmander kept Fauja upbeat with white lies about the remaining distance. He’d tell Fauja there were four miles left when there were actually six, then two miles left when there were actually three, making Fauja believe he’d covered more ground than he actually had, until finally Fauja saw the only mile-marker he understood: the finish line. What had been silence between footsteps was now music and cheers. The slog to the finish reminded Fauja of his wedding day, of the joy that awaited at the end of the long aisle. He waved to the crowd as he walked across the line, then lifted his arms and accepted a medal. He’d finished in 8 hours, 25 minutes. There were smiles and handshakes and photos with friends and strangers, then a rambling news conference for Fauja to reflect on his record. Amid the chaos and congratulations, however, Fauja and Harmander never noticed the absence of one celebrant they’d expected.
They didn’t realize that Guinness was nowhere to be found.
But none of that would matter for another century or so. In 1911, it mattered only that the boy was healthy and happy and loved. By his second birthday, however, Fauja’s parents had cause for concern: He couldn’t walk. The way Fauja tells it, his legs were short and spindly, capable of movement but too weak to support his body. He turned 3. No steps yet. Then 4. Still crawling. Children called him danda, Punjabi for “stick.” Family members worried he might be crippled for life, so they consulted village doctors. Generally unfamiliar with Western medicine, the local health care providers were likely to concoct an herbal remedy for illness or prescribe human urine for injuries, but in Fauja’s case, they saw nothing wrong. The boy was just weak, they said. Nothing could be done.
Finally, at age 5, he developed enough strength to hobble. Proper walking didn’t come until around age 10. In the Punjab, schools were scarce and attended only by the upper classes, so as he grew, Fauja joined the village’s other men on the farm. He fed the cattle. He worked the land, growing maize and wheat. When monsoon season brought rain and rain turned dirt to mud, Fauja returned home each day with his clothes soiled, ready to rest with a hot cup of tea. He subsisted on milk and yogurt and conversations that stretched from afternoon to night. It was a simple life, each day’s monotonous pleasures carrying over to the next. Years passed. Fauja married. His wife, Gian Kaur, had three boys and three girls. Years more passed. The children grew. By the 1960s, most had married and moved, one by one, to the West. One settled in Canada, the others in England. One stayed at home — Kuldip, Fauja’s fifth child and second son.
In 1992, his wife died. Fauja grieved but felt thankful, celebrating a long life well lived. He was 81 now, surely approaching death himself, and he was happy to live out his remaining days at home with Kuldip. “I have always loved my children the same,” he says, but there in the village, he could see and touch and smell only Kuldip every day. In the mornings, they worked the fields. In the afternoons, they laughed over tea. In the evenings, they retired to their roadside home. There was no favouritism, he’d say, only the intimacy of a life shared.
This concludes Part 1. I will continue with Part 2 tomorrow. It is enough for me, for now, to just absorb these initial details of a man’s life. It is enough that I feel a strange connection to being born a Sikh, like Fauja Singh. It is enough for me to like the look of his face but not know why. It is enough for me to feel at home within myself when I read about him and his journey. It is enough for me to just think about his turban, his Zeusian beard swaying in the wind, and his still spindly (but very strong) legs pounding the pavement with every step he took, not just in the races he took part in, but during those initial steps when growing up; hobbling because he couldn’t walk till he was 10. It is enough that I just contemplate simplicity, and the simple patterns of his life – how this is possible. And how he met his wife. Without internet dating. Or manifesting it by creating a list. And the pain that must have filled his heart when she died. You will see in my continuation posts that it is precisely this pain, this grief over losing his wife, which propelled him to run. Everyone runs for a reason but most of the time, that reason is pain.
I wish you well, wherever you are.